How it Feels to be Colored Me | Study Guide

Zora Neale Hurston

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How it Feels to be Colored Me | Context

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Hurston and the Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of African American arts and culture, occurred between about 1918 and 1937 in New York City. The movement strongly associates with the New York City neighborhood of Harlem, but its influence reached many U.S. cities and even Europe. The writers, artists, and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance promoted pride in an African American identity, consciously seeking to challenge the racism and stereotypes prevalent in white culture. The movement had no single, central philosophy, and it spanned a huge range of artistic and intellectual efforts. Some of the movement's central figures included sociologist and reformer W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), poet Langston Hughes (c. 1902–67), and Zora Neale Hurston.

Major figures of the Harlem Renaissance fiercely debated their own roles as creative and intellectual spokespersons for African American identity. Zora Neale Hurston, as one of the movement's most celebrated female writers, often found herself at the center of this debate. Whereas some members of the movement rejected negative depictions of African Americans, believing they played into white stereotypes, Hurston tended to favor nuanced depictions of characters that portrayed both positive and negative attributes. Many Harlem Renaissance writers focused on modern city life, but Hurston often set her stories in rural communities, particularly her beloved hometown of Eatonville, Florida. Commonly, writers of the movement viewed their work as political and social propaganda intended to fight racism, but Hurston rejected such a purpose in favor of creative freedom.

In the essay "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," Hurston breaks with ideas of racial pride fostered by many contributors of the Harlem Renaissance in that she criticizes those who belong to the "sobbing school of Negrohood"—those who think that their blackness keeps them from finding success in society or those who think that their identities must be tied to the legacy of slavery and the propagation of racism. Hurston advocates the idea of individual identity above a collective racial identity.

Because of these choices, Hurston often faced criticism from her peers within the movement, some of whom accused her of glorifying stereotypical images of African Americans. Hurston was equally and vocally critical of many of her peers. For instance, she accused the celebrated author Richard Wright (1908–60) for the "lavish killing" and racial violence in his novels. Nevertheless, Hurston's proud and complex depictions of African American life place her legacy squarely in the center of the Harlem Renaissance movement.

Eatonville, Florida

The town of Eatonville, Florida, located six miles north of Orlando, was founded in 1887 as a self-governing black municipality. Eatonville is named after Josiah C. Eaton, a white landowner who, unusually for the period, agreed to sell land to African Americans. The town was the first all-black municipality in the United States, offering a haven of freedom and self-determination for residents, many of whom were former slaves.

Hurston, who grew up in Eatonville, called it "a city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools, and no jailhouse." It is within this setting in "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" that Hurston develops her first sense of identity as "everybody's Zora" or "Zora of Orange County"—a version of Zora who does not view herself as colored. Although the town has had many struggles, including a high poverty rate, Hurston and other children of the town grew up insulated from racism, surrounded by African American leaders, teachers, ministers, and other role models. This background helped Hurston develop a unique, fiercely proud point of view on African American culture.

Cultural Significance of the Terms Colored and Negro

Today, many Americans consider the words colored and Negro outdated and offensive. Contemporary Americans prefer the terms black or African American to refer to people of African descent, and the term people of color to refer inclusively to all nonwhite people. However, until the 1960s, both colored and Negro were considered socially acceptable. Because of this history, both terms remain in use in the names of older civil rights organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the United Negro College Fund (UNCF).

The word negro, from the Spanish and Portuguese negro, or "black," first came into use as a racial term in the 1550s. It was capitalized beginning in the early 20th century, and it was widely used among African American intellectuals of the time, some of whom considered it the preferred term. For instance, Blanche Kelso Bruce (1841–98), an African American man who served in the United States Senate (1875–81), embraced the term, saying, "I am a Negro and proud of it." And in 1906 a Harper's Weekly reporter asked the African American leader and intellectual Booker T. Washington (1856–1915) how best to refer to African Americans, and he said he liked to use the capitalized word Negro. However, Negro also has a long history of use in contexts dominated and determined by white culture, and over time many Americans began to associate the word with racism. These cultural associations eventually led to a decline in the use of the term.

Use of the term colored also has a long and complex history. The term person of color can be traced back at least to the 1700s, where it appeared in the text of an 1807 United States law prohibiting the import of enslaved people from overseas. In the 1800s racial terminology was already a subject of intense debate. Not all African Americans agreed on which word was best, and many embraced the term colored. This word appeared in self-defining and respectful contexts but also, like Negro, in many racist contexts. Eventually, colored became associated with the racial segregation era in the South, when blacks and whites were not allowed by law to share many of the same public spaces. Legal racial segregation began around 1865 and did not end until the 1960s civil rights movement. However, in 1928, when Zora Neale Hurston wrote "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," both colored and Negro were still common, socially acceptable terms.

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